The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Charleston, alleges that mine runoff from five mines operated by Elk Run Coal Co. and Alex Energy allegedly has contaminated the water in the Laurel Creek and Twentymile Creek watersheds with sulfate and other dissolved solids that make them toxic to aquatic life.
The suit is based on the same legal theory that the groups used to obtain a recent settlement against Fola Coal Co., requiring it to cleanup another biologically impaired tributary in the Twentymile Creek watershed. In both cases, the groups contend that the mining companies allegedly have violated West Virginia’s “narrative” water quality standards, which set general criteria for water quality, rather than “numeric” water quality standards, which set limits on the concentration of specific pollutants in water.
“Coal companies can mine safely and healthily,” said Jim Sconyers, chapter director of the West Virginia Sierra Club. “It's a pity that the WVDEP doesn’t require them to do so, and groups like ours have to do their job. We can't allow these companies to keep poisoning our streams.”
Compliance with narrative standards typically is determined by taking field measurements of the abundance and diversity of aquatic life in the stream, rather than by only measuring the amount of chemicals in the discharged water. Some tributaries of the Laurel and Twentymile creeks show significant damage to aquatic life compared to that in unpolluted reference streams. A large portion of the land area in these two watersheds has been disturbed by mining and valley fills.
“If mining in these areas is to continue it must be done in a manner that doesn’t further degrade the water in these streams” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “It is important for people who live by and enjoy these streams and for the future of the state of West Virginia that greater care must be afforded to the waters we leave for our children and our children’s children.”
EPA has estimated that nine out of 10 streams downstream from valley fills associated with coal mines are biologically impaired. But neither the state of West Virginia nor the EPA has taken action to require compliance and cleanup of the impaired streams. Congress authorized citizen suits under the Clean Water Act to enforce the law directly against permit violators like Elk Run and Alex Energy.